Amazon’s Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets was a documentary waiting to happen ever since the Josh Duggar scandal broke eight years ago. In many ways, it is a documentary that needed to be made. It discusses real problems within the homeschooling movement that many homeschoolers would prefer to ignore. It tells the stories of women and men whose upbringing ranged from deeply flawed to abusive; and it helps to illustrate how one of the most religiously conservative elements in American society, the homeschooling community, might actually contribute to the rise of the Nones. For all this, however, the documentary suffers from a fundamental flaw: it fails to say anything about the millions of ordinary homeschoolers who are raising children in perfectly healthy (and sometimes quite secular) ways. More importantly, perhaps, in presenting the documentary’s survivors as victims primarily of a religious ideology, it does a disservice to homeschoolers whose difficulties stem from more mundane human problems.
Shiny Happy People, despite its provocative subtitle, is about more than the Duggars. Although it includes interviews with Josh’s sister Jill Duggar Dillard and a number of other men and women involved with the Duggars’ TLC reality series, 19 Kids and Counting, the four-episode series also examines the evangelical homeschooling culture that inspired parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. Though they were influenced by the Quiverfull movement and a Baptist background, the documentary pegs the Duggars’ biggest formative influence as being Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a nondenominational Christian organization that dates back to the 1960s.
Gothard, like Josh Duggar, has his personal problems. In 2014 he resigned from IBLP after multiple women accused him of molestation and harassment. The stories of the women included in Shiny Happy People are heart wrenching, the damage wreaked by the atmosphere surrounding Gothard’s movement palpable. After an hour or two of watching you want nothing more than to curl up and pretend TV stopped with the last I Love Lucy episode in 1957—that, or join a march protesting Christian patriarchy.
But if Shiny Happy People should be required “how not to” viewing for homeschooling parents, it is precisely the wrong sort of documentary to inform the general public about homeschooling and its problems. The series is fundamentally limited by the way in which it uses the Duggar starting point to craft a general impression which, while it hangs chiefly about IBLP, leaves homeschooling in general in an unsavory odor.
What Shiny Happy People portrays is not reflective of homeschooling as a whole. In the first place, the series limits itself to evangelical homeschoolers. Although evangelicals have historically made up a large proportion of American homeschoolers and remain overrepresented in the movement, perhaps as many as a quarter of homeschoolers consider themselves secular. Homeschoolers are also more racially and ethnically diverse now than in the 90s; and while religious or moral instruction is still a priority for many homeschooling parents, concern about school environments and dissatisfaction with academic instruction appear equally important to parents, with a desire to use “nontraditional” approaches and “other reasons” also in the mix. You can find Catholics, mainline Protestants, atheists, and Muslims who homeschool; proponents of classical education, unschooling, and conventional schooling. This is not to say that Gothard and IBLP were without influence or were influential only among evangelicals: some Catholic homeschoolers, especially in the early years of the 1980s and 1990s, used curricula produced by evangelicals and imbibed evangelical attitudes towards things like modesty and dating. But the influence of this strain of homeschooling was never universal; and certainly post-COVID, it would be risible to present IBLP as the homeschooling mainstream.
Even historically and within the evangelical homeschooling movement, IBLP represented an extreme ideological wing. It boasts having reached 2.5 million people over the course of its work, has hosted conferences attended by thousands, and has taught thousands of Protestant pastors. For comparison, about 3.7 million students were homeschooled in the U.S. in 2020-21, and the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that about 9 million students have been homeschooled for some part of their education. Assuming that IBLP is not inflating its numbers, but that some proportion of the people reached are not homeschooled children but rather parents, pastors, other adults, or even children in conventional schools, one is still forced to conclude that an uncomfortably high proportion of homeschoolers were “reached” by IBLP—though how many accepted its teachings is another question.
Having acknowledged that the exact reach of IBLP is an open question, it nonetheless remains the case that Shiny Happy People uses IBLP’s “cultlike” atmosphere to cast shade on certain normal aspirations and activities. One can receive the impression that homeschooling is stage one of a plan to reduce America to The Handmaid’s Tale levels of oppression. And indeed, one series interviewee namechecks Margaret Atwood’s speculative novel as being the sort of thing to which Gothardesque teachings could lead.
That may or may not be a fair critique of IBLP’s direction. But Shiny Happy People goes beyond critiquing IBLP to find fault with HSLDA leader Mike Farris’s desire to see a “Joshua Generation,” a cadre of homeschoolers who would become “Christian servant leaders in America.” To critique Farris’s goals based on his book is fair; to treat them as equivalent to IBLP’s is not. And it is profoundly strange to suggest (as Shiny Happy People implicitly does) that there is something strange and nefarious about people who believe in their principles wanting to see them become a reality in the public square. One can find many instances of organizations religious and otherwise, left and right, that hoped to spread their adherents through society: the 1967 Land O’Lakes meeting of progressive Catholics in higher ed, the Frankfurt School of European Marxists whose ideas drifted through American universities, the Federalist Society creating student organizations in law schools, and the various instantiations of the Pride movement working their way through schools, libraries, and civic organizations. Wanting to make one’s voice and ideas heard is not unique to homeschoolers; it is the common desire of every human being committed to a cause.
What makes proselytizing objectionable is not the desire to spread one’s beliefs, but the circumstance of one’s ends or means being immoral or unjust—as many of the patriarchal teachings and practices reported about IBLP are. But while it might behoove homeschoolers to examine their beliefs about the world before they start aspiring toward congressional elections, Shiny Happy People suffers from failing to distinguish between the sort of innocent aspirational designs common to many homeschoolers and what Gothard wrought, painting it all with the same sinister brush.
All of these criticisms relate to how Shiny Happy People maligns the homeschooling movement. At the same time, however, its misrepresentation fails to address a genuine issue among homeschoolers. In blaming a corrupt Christian ideology for the failures of people like Bill Gothard and Joshua Duggar and the suffering of many others, Shiny Happy People seems to suggest that if only there were less biblical extremism, all of this mental and physical suffering could have been prevented. In point of fact, though, while it may not be exactly material conditions which are to blame (as Marx would have it), problems in homeschooling are unlikely to be merely the consequence of bad ideas (with apologies to Richard Weaver).
Over the past few months I’ve conducted an exploratory study of homeschoolers, many of them with Catholic or evangelical backgrounds. I’ve surveyed 130 individuals and had follow-up correspondence with over a dozen of them. While results from a non-random sample must always be taken cautiously, these responses suggest a hypothesis that tells a very different story from the usual critique of religious homeschoolers. In this majority-religious group, religion may sometimes affect the expression of parental problems, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause. Instead, the way religious impulses manifest appears to make the chief difference. A Roman Catholic or Evangelical or mainline Protestant parent who sets out to create a positive moral environment for their homeschooled child, more than likely, will raise a child who wants to recreate that experience as an adult. A Roman Catholic or Evangelical or mainline Protestant parent who sets out to protect their children from the environment outside the family is more likely to see their children leave the homeschooling movement and, in some cases, leave Christianity altogether.
It is of course entirely possible for a destructive ideology, religious or otherwise, to warp ordinary people’s understanding of reality and, specifically, of how to raise and educate their children. But when one examines the stories of homeschoolers who regret or resent their education, the most common throughline does not seem to be belonging to a religion. It may be that a parent struggled with isolation, mental illness, undiagnosed neurological conditions, or a personality disorder. It is almost certainly related to their need to control their children’s environment and behavior.
For some homeschooling parents whose children are dissatisfied, one can even trace a reaction to circumstances in the grandparents’ household(s): experimental parents of the sixties and seventies in some cases produced reactionary parents of the nineties. GenXers who felt they suffered from overly permissive or absentee parents, who saw their parents through acrimonious divorces or other forms of marital instability, or who suffered some form of childhood trauma may sometimes cling to authoritarian parenting as a means of creating a more controlled environment for their own children. In doing this, they may pass on the trauma they inherited, albeit in a different form.
Personal or family struggles might seem like a poor structure on which to ground a homeschooling experience, but it is easy to see why a child who grew up feeling “different” in their own family or public school might be more inclined to choose to homeschool—oftentimes for better, but sometimes for worse. For a person who never fit into their own high school or workplace, who was unhappy or bullied, who had (rightly or wrongly) problems with authority, the appeal of homeschooling is obvious: you get to set your own terms and create an environment that is enclosed and emotionally safe. There are healthy ways to do that; and there are, unfortunately, unhealthy ways. And for those who have already launched into homeschooling in an unhealthy direction, if Bill Gothard or Jim Bob Duggar or some other prominent figure gives you the tools to confirm your stance, so much the better—again, for them, if not for their children. It seems clear, however, that at least in those cases the religious sect is being chosen to serve and shape the psychological needs of a few homeschooling parents, rather than the sect shaping ordinary parents to its designs. Even IBLP seems to oftentimes have an instrumental rather than a primary role.
The surprising thing is not that such situations have occurred, but rather that any graduates of the paranoid style of homeschooling are still willing to consider homeschooling their own children. But while they are far less interested than the average religious homeschooler, some adults who report bad experiences being homeschooled are nonetheless willing to consider homeschooling their own children. When these homeschool graduates do homeschool, they often pivot away from their parents’ methods, reaching out into their communities to encourage extracurricular activities, friendships, tutoring sessions, and life experiences they missed in childhood. They recognize the flexibility and personalized attention that homeschooling at its best can offer; but they also know the pitfalls that can arise when any parent, homeschooling or otherwise, becomes too focused on what’s wrong with the world.
In a way, these once-burned homeschoolers are the perfect answer to Shiny Happy People. More clearly than any other group of people can, they show that homeschooling doesn’t have an intrinsic ideology problem. It is possible that homeschooling has a problem with overprotection—not because homeschooling attracts overly protective parents, but because huge numbers of Americans struggle with helicopter-parenting, and some happen to homeschool. Amazon would do well to check its priors and biases with regard to religion. But homeschoolers would also do well to ask themselves whether the slow drip of anti-homeschooling propaganda has not some basis in reality. The problem might not be what Shiny Happy People claims it is, but it hardly follows that there are no serpents in Eden.
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